Timing has almost always been an issue for the Indians' development of pitchers over the last few decades. Most of Charles Nagy's best years came before the Indians were relevant -- once they were, he was far less effective than in his younger days, mostly fitting in as a league-average arm who could eat innings. The former Fausto Carmona, now Roberto Hernandez, helped lead the Indians to the ALCS in 2007, but was otherwise an absolute disaster during his seven years in Cleveland. CC Sabathia arrived in the majors when he was 20, but didn't truly become a difference maker until 2006, when he was already 25 and nearly on his way out of town -- Sabathia would be dealt to the Brewers in 2008, months ahead of his lucrative, Indians-less free agency. Cliff Lee, for the most part, wasn't much of a big-league pitcher thanks to injuries until 2008, but the Indians would deal him the very next summer, for the same depressing financial reasons they moved Sabathia during Lee's breakout campaign. Bartolo Colon has stood alone as a pitcher who was not only great shortly after his arrival, but also at a time when he could help an Indians' team that mattered.
That is, until Corey Kluber broke out. Kluber was a nondescript pitching prospect just a few years ago, tossed in to a three-way deal also involving the Cardinals and Padres that sent Ryan Ludwick to San Diego and Jake Westbrook to St. Louis. Even as recently as 2013, Kluber was a good, but not great starter, the owner of a league-average ERA who made just 24 starts and threw 147 innings at a time when the dual resurgence of Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez received more notice en route to the Indians' first playoff berth since that 2007 team. Now, though, he's leading the American League with 31 starts, is striking out five times as many batters as he's walking thanks to both superb punch out (9.7 per nine) and free pass (1.9 per nine) figures, and is part of the three-person conversation for American League Cy Young alongside the far more celebrated Felix Hernandez and Chris Sale. Kluber seemed like a long shot for a while, but he has a 1.65 ERA since June 25, a stretch spanning 109 innings and 15 starts: were he to keep at that pace for his last few starts, he might close the gap enough to make the vote interesting.
Kluber might not be exactly this good forever, but there are reasons to believe he's going to continue to be great. His command took a leap this year, and with it came increased effectiveness on all of his pitches, of which there are many: Kluber can put his sinker, cutter, and slider wherever he wants, and get batters to either miss on them entirely or drive them into the ground when they do make contact. What separates him from the rest of the great Indians pitchers of the last few decades is that Cleveland will actually get to enjoy him for more than just a season or two.
Photo credit: Ed Zurga
Lee is the most similar case to Kluber, given they were both late bloomers -- Lee's breakout season in 2008 was his seventh in the majors and fifth full-time year, and came when he was 29 years old -- he had been a quality pitcher in the past, but never to this degree, and injuries interrupted these two periods of his career to boot. Kluber is 28 and, after four years with appearances in the bigs, finally pitched a season from start to finish. There's even the fact both pitchers took their massive jumps in production by way of improved command. Lee strike out five times as many batters as he walked in 2008 while cutting his career homer rate by more than half down to 0.6: Kluber's strikeout-to-walk ratio and home run rate mirror those of Lee.
They aren't the same pitcher, of course, as Lee is left-handed and Kluber, in his limited big-league time, seems as if he's more of a strikeout pitcher, but that's not what's important. What matters is that Lee had to be dealt the year after winning a Cy Young award because the Indians were not going to be able to afford yet another ace on the free agent market, while Kluber is under team control through 2018.
On top of that, it'll come at a time that the Indians matter as they made the playoffs in 2013 with help from Kluber, and might just sneak in through the wild card yet again this year. It could be tough to pass the Royals and Tigers for the AL Central lead, as Cleveland is four games back with just 17 to play, and the same could be said about the wild card since they're 3.5 back, but the possibility still exists. Far more hopeless playoff chases than this one have concluded successfully for the team doing the chasing. If they don't make it, well, they still have Kluber next year, and they'll have prospects like Francisco Lindor, Tyler Naquin, and more around to bolster the rest of the team eventually, too.
Kluber will be heading into his age-33 season when he's finally a free agent, so the timing should even work out for Cleveland in terms of an exit strategy. At that stage, Kluber will be just old enough where it's easier to let him walk for dollars elsewhere given the risk involved for someone with the Indians' budget, and if they're no good in 2018, they can deal him like they did Sabathia and Lee. The key difference is that Kluber would have been around long enough for them to do something with his abilities. Whether he'll be as fantastic going forward as he's been in 2014 remains to be seen, but at least the Indians will get the chance to find out this time.